Christmas Countdown, Friday #2

Day 8

Remember, this day’s theme is All I Want for Christmas Is You, and this is absolutely one of my favorite covers of it for a ton of reasons. This one is from Out of the Blue, described on their website as Oxford’s premier all-male a cappella group, and they regularly do charity singles like this for the benefit of Helen & Douglas House Hospice for Children and Young Adults.

Go show them some holiday donation love right now! I’ll wait!

The other nice thing about OOTB is that over the years they have become more and more inclusive. As far as I can determine, this video is only five years old (although I could swear I’ve been linking to it every year for much longer), and it only hints playfully at accidental gayness. Their more recent videos don’t hold back or apologize for anything. This one is just tons of cute and adorable, plus these boys can sing and dance. And for a good cause.

Don’t miss Thursday’s post, or Saturday’s!

Friday Free for all #38: Words, music, and magic

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the most disgusting sounding word in the English language?

I know that a lot of people don’t like the word “moist,” but I don’t see what the problem with it is. And it’s still a toss-up whether the disgust people feel for words in whatever language have more to do with the sound than with the concept or thing it’s describing.

One web poll, for example, ranked “lugubrious” as a disgusting sounding word, but its meaning is decidedly not. It just refers to something that looks or sounds sad or dismal.

I don’t think I have one word in particular, but I do have some nominees: phlegm, smegma, and clitoris. And no, it has nothing to do with two of them being really gross bodily secretions and one being a very important part of the female anatomy.

It’s just that the first two sound a lot like they smell, as it were, and when you can smell a word, that’s bad. Also, it wouldn’t be at all inappropriate to pronounce either one like you’re about to hock up a giant loogie. And both “hock” and “loogie” aren’t far from round out a top five list for me here.

As for “clitoris,” no matter which syllable you emphasize (c-LIT-oris? Cli-TOR-is?) it’s just got too many clicks and weak vowels in it.

Do you like classical music?

No, I don’t like classical music. I FUCKING LOVE IT! Then again, I had a rather unusual musical upbringing as a child, starting with me beginning musical lessons when I was seven years old. And, fortunately, a hell of a lot of that learning was based on music theory — i.e., the Circle of Fifths, and the relationships of chords and keys to each other.

End result: while I’ve always been okay at reading sheet music, I’ve been demon motherfucking at improvising and composing. That’s part one.

Part two: My paternal grandfather — actually, step-grandfather, but I never met my bio one, so he counts as my only real one — was a big-time audiophile, and he was constantly going off to buy lots of records. Um… “lots” in the “sold in bulk” sense, and not in the “numerous sense.”

He would get these from estate sales or thrift shops or wherever. He’d bring them home, and remove what interested him — which was anything jazz, blues, big band, etc., before the era of rock and roll.

So… he would cull his collection, and leave behind endless milk crates with tons of classic rock albums, along with anything spoken voice and anything classical. Whenever I or any of my three same-age (second) cousins (long story) would visit, we got to go through the crates and take what we wanted.

Naturally, my cousins went for the classic rock, but I really didn’t have much interest in that. Instead, I went for the spoken word, and so discovered many a comedian I otherwise might not have because they came before my time. But I also grabbed anything classical I could get my hands on.

This all happened when I was in elementary and middle school, and I had already found Beethoven and Mozart, while my music lessons had introduced me to Chopin and Debussy. And then I got to high school, and had the most wonderful music teach of all.

His name was Ken Kamp, now deceased, and he was mostly a jazzman, but I wound up in marching band, orchestra, and the jazz ensemble with him throughout my high school years. Since I was a keyboardist, I only played piano in the latter. In the first two, I was the bass drummer and percussionist, particularly timpanist.

But the most amazing thing was the music history class I took with him my first year, and he made everything come alive, because he had a knack for turning it into stories. He would cover a couple of composers with dramatized bits, play some of their stuff, and I would add “Artists to check out” to me brain list.

One class I remember in particular was when he covered Hector Berlioz, mostly known for the Symphonie fantastique, but who actually wrote the definitive book on orchestration, and he did it by picking the minds of students at a particular music academy.

To this day, I remember him acting out the supposed scenario in the school cafeteria. “So he found the best player of a particular instrument, like, say, the oboe. And he sat them down and said, ‘Okay… what are your high and low notes, and what keys work for you, and if you finger it like this, is that easier than that?’”

Anyway… that march through the classics really influenced me as a composer, and gave me tons of favorites. My top ten? Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Orff, Holst, Williams, Elfman. (Yes, the last two do write classical music.)

If you ever want to have the most emotional experience of your life, go see (when it’s possible again) a full orchestral and choral performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Stay for it all, then strap in for the fourth movement.

When it hits the finale, if you don’t explode into tears of pure joy, then you have no soul.

What’s the closest thing to magic that actually exists?

I subscribe to Clarke’s Third Law, named for science fiction Arthur C. Clarke, which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So… that thing in your pocket that you can surf the internet on, send messages to people around the world, watch videos, make phone calls, and so on? Yeah, take that back to 1970 with some sort of time-link still connected to now, and you would make people’s heads explode with your witchcraft.

Of course, nowadays, a lot of people take the magic for granted and don’t even realize that without Einstein, their GPS would not work. Why? Because, relativity. Meaning that the GPS satellite up above the Earth experiencing slightly less gravity also experiences time in a slightly different way.

Meaning that in order to do the very precise calculations that won’t dump your ass in a canyon whenever you try to drive to CostCo require very refined adjustments to account for the different inertial frames of reference experienced by the satellite, your cell phone, and the nearest transmission towers.

Sure, the differences are in milliseconds or less, but they can translate into huge differences in spatial difference on Earth. If you’re off by one degree, depending on latitude, you could be off by tens of miles. Even an error of a second of latitude or longitude could put you off by dozens of feet.

But if you want real magic, then you have to dive into the big and the small — astrophysics and quantum physics.

Caveat: this is only magic if you don’t understand it. I’ve kind of been a fan forever, so I guess that makes me amateur wizard.

Anyway… astrophysics has taken us to the Moon and all of the planets in our Solar System, even sending two probes out. Meanwhile, it has also sent our eyes across the local group and the universe, with which we have learned so much — like discovering thousands of exoplanets, learning tons about black holes, gauging the true age of the universe, and even possibly discovering evidence of universes before it.

Quantum physics has run in the other direction, and proven that it does not get along with large-scale classical physics — yet. But it has taught us a bit about what everything is made of, and how weird reality gets at very tiny scales — and how tiny those scales are compared to everything else.

Just take a look at this amazing video from Morn1415, whom I encourage all of you to follow, because he does amazing stuff, indistinguishable from magic.

But, honestly, to me, the real magic was (and someday again may be) the look of love and admiration given to me by any of the dogs who I’ve ever been lucky enough to have as a companion.  Note that I will never say “dogs I’ve owned,” because I never owned them. They just decided to let me share my life with them.

And that was always the real magic.

Friday Free-for-all #36: First world fashion

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What first-world problem do you have?

I believe that people define “first-world problem” as something that people in wealthy countries struggle with, but which is hardly an inconvenience at all — things like “Trader Joe’s discontinued my favorite thing,” or “We still can’t tickets to Hamilton” (well, okay, right now, no one can), or “Can you believe that Ernesto can’t come out to detail the Lexus until a week from Thursday? He is that booked up.”

Of course, the real first-world problems are things like, “I just turned 50 and I’m still paying off my student loans,” or “I know I’m supposed to buy health insurance, but I’m a 35-year-old single mother with two kids, and the monthly premium would be almost twice my rent, which I can barely pay either,” or “Our CEO just retired with a $35,000,000 bonus package, and I haven’t had a raise in seven years.”

But they’re not first-world problems because they involve people who don’t live in mud shacks under an oppressive military regime or in nations with a GDP of five dollars U.S.

That’s because most people completely misuse the terms “first world” and “third world” and completely forget that there is a “second world” as well.

See, these are not economic terms. They are political, and date back to the Cold War. The First World comprised the U.S. and its allies, and the Second World was the Soviet Union and theirs. The Third World were all of those countries not aligned with either super-power.

So while a lot of people may think “Most of Africa” or “Places like Bangladesh” when they hear Third World, that is completely wrong. A lot of countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America were part of the First or Second World.

Here are some Third World countries, if you go by the actual definition: Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland, to name just a few of the 120 that are still currently part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Now, I don’t think anyone could look at those countries listed and think of them as “impoverished shitholes,” and yet that’s the true image most people have of third-world countries.

Getting back to what I listed as actual first-world problems — student loan debt, unaffordable health insurance and ridiculous rents, wealth being concentrated in the hands of the 1% while the rest barely get by, enormous income inequality, and hardly any union protections anymore — they are all the results of exactly what made the First World the First World in the first place.

Capitalism. In case you didn’t notice — First World, capitalist countries (under the euphemism of “Western Democracies”) vs. Second World communist countries (under the euphemism Soviet Bloc and satellite nations.)

So other than people getting the definition wrong being my personal first-world problem, my real problem with the First World is that it has proven unfettered capitalism to be just as failed a system as Soviet-style communism, which is just as corrupt and rotten at the top as is our current regime and as has been the party associated with it for forty years now.

I usually don’t go political here, and I’m trying to keep it abstract, but you asked. Okay, a website asked at random and my computer picked the question at random, but there you go.

Does fashion help society in any way?

This is a yes and no. Personally, I think that the emphasis Western culture puts on fashion is ridiculous. If the clothes fit and look good on you, that should be all that matters. But too many people invest too much time in fawning all over designers and labels, and paying way too much for stuff then can get better-made versions of a year later and for a lot less.

You’ve probably heard the whole “Don’t wear white after Labor Day” thing, right? In fact, that was a completely invented rule, although the reasons for its invention are murky. It might have been rich old-money women messing with the wives of the nouveau-riche in the late 19th century, after all of the new technologies and resources the U.S. was inventing and exploiting made tons of new millionaires.

Or it may just have been that white was for people who were able to travel to winter vacation homes in warmer climates to wear, while the ones who stayed behind in the city dressed drab from early September until late May.

In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, it’s been the fashion for a while now for Democratic women in Congress to wear white year-round — in fact, “suffragette white” in honor of the 100th anniversary of (most) American women getting the vote.

So yes, fashion and the idea that it has arbiters is silly, but I’ll bet that when a lot of people think about the ridiculousness of fashion, they think of those big runway shows during the Fashion Week of various cities, in which designers trot out their supposed designs for the next seasons’ lines.

But, of course, they create ridiculous things that would never be practical to wear IRL. Just a few examples appear here:

Of course, the models don’t even always wear clothes, as this very NSFW runway show demonstrates.

So, what’s going on? They’re not going to start selling these outfits at high-end boutiques and trickle them down to the little people, are they?

And the answer is “Of course not.”

The fashion shows are all about marketing and attention, and each of the designers trying to out-weird the others. The media eats it up by reporting it to their naïve fans as “OMG, can you believe that Clark St. Clark Divine Devore has in store for you this fall?” along with photos of models dressed in dirndls made of mirrored tiles, twelve-inch stiletto heels, four-foot high neon-colored wigs that cover their faces, not the backs of their heads, and wings made of actual chicken bones.

Which is all total bullshit, of course. There are two things happening in these shows: 1) Each designer is screaming “Look at me!” while hoping to get their name into the pop culture and fashion media. 2) At the same time, they are often showing off the materials and color palettes that they will be using in their legit designs — and those will probably show up at some point during the week, too, but most likely during the events focused on by the fashion press, like Elle and Vogue, and not the bullshite press, like People and Us.

Long detour to the answer, because there really is a distinction to be made between the fashion industry and fashion in general.

The industry takes itself way too seriously, and that is summed up in this amazing moment from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, in which her character delivers an amazing monologue in which she is so very right and yet so very wrong at the same time. It’s worth the watch.

And if you didn’t watch: After Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) giggles when a costume assistant holds up two belts that appear to be the same color, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) goes off on the color of Andrea’s sweater and traces its history back to the high-fashion runways and expensive designers, and basically outlines how some creator of haute couture four years earlier suddenly said, “I like this color!”, colored their collection with it, and it trickled down to eventually land in a bargain bin at a place like Ross Dress for Less.

That’s what’s so good about this movie: It both explains and eviscerates the fashion industry at the same time, and that approaches my answer.

Does the fashion industry help society in any way? Oh, fuck no, except as an opportunity for those of us who don’t care to be able to laugh at the pretentious.

But… does fashion help society in any way? In the sense that it’s personal, oh hell yes. When people just pick what they like, maybe learn to figure out what compliments their body shape and complexion, then puts it all together to express themselves, then that is the epitome of helping society by empowering people through finding their voice and look.

In essence, it makes each individual their own fashion designer, and to hell with what’s in style, or what color is hot this year, or whatever. It is the branding of those who reject brands and consumerism and being sold on what is supposed to be “hot.”

Which is kind of the anti-point of the last clip above.

I know a lot of people who dress very eclectic retro, which means a mix of all of the styles from the 1990s on back, practically speaking to maybe the 1920s, mixed and matched. But a funny thing happens when they do that. Well, a few things.

First, they create their own unique visual thing that is never less than interesting, but also instantly recognizable as them.

Second, it’s pretty clear that they don’t care less what the mainstream fashion industry tells them to wear, which actually ups my estimation of them instantly.

Third, most of the time, they’re not getting their outfits from any major retailers, rather relying on discount houses that dump imperfects or out-of-season clothes, but especially on thrift shops, that have a lot of high-end stuff for pennies on the Benjamin.

Not that we can do it right now, of course, but this is the fashion that makes a difference, and the fashion that empowers.

Designers are over-rated. The people know what they want and, given the freedom, they will wear it.

Friday Free-for-all #30: Questions, questions

NOTE: Due to a formatting error by WordPress, the original version of this post was corrupted, with missing text. This is the corrected version, which should now make a lot more sense.

This originally started as me answering one random question generated by a website, but the questions eventually got to the part where they didn’t really need long answers. So, instead, it’s turned into a slow-motion interview with multiple queries. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments — or ask your own!

Do you text more or call more? Why?

I absolutely text (or message) more. Calling is a tool of either intrusion or rudeness: it tells the person you’re calling, “Pay attention to me right now!” If they choose to let it go to voicemail, then they’re saying I don’t have time to drop everything right now and talk

There are only a couple of people, of course, who get an immediate answer, but since most of the calls I get nowadays are robots or sales calls, I rarely answer my phone. It’s kind of ironic that the feature that was so useful about these pocket computers when they first came out (as not really computers) has now become one of the most useless.

What is the fanciest restaurant you have eaten at?

It’s a tie between two for very different reasons. One is “money fancy” and the other is “atmosphere fancy.”

The former was the Jonathan Club in Downtown L.A., and as you can probably tell from the name, it’s a private club that’s been around since forever. The reason that I got my poor ass in, along with a group of co-workers/friends of equal socio-economic status, was that one of the producers on the TV show we all worked on at the time belonged to the club and took us there as a thank you.

Everything about it just screamed prosperity. It was a huge place — I think it took up the entire twelve-story building — and was a combination of “gentlemen’s” club, restaurants, and private suites for members’ use if they happened to be in town on a business trip. (The club is part of a network with reciprocal membership.)

I think the place may have even had a gym and indoor pool and all the amenities. It was founded in 1895, so had been there over a century when we went.

It was certainly impressive. We worked our way through a large, carpeted hall edged in dark wood with side rooms off it, each one with full bookcases and wingback chairs for the members’ comfort.

The dining room was huge, with big round tables surrounded by very comfy leather chairs that actually had arms. It was the kind of place with white linen everything, a placeholder dish with a placeholder dish on top of that to start, all the kinds of glasses, and every possible fork, knife, spoon and weird tool available in the cutlery collection, laid out in order, all in solid (not plated) silver.

It was also a menu that had only a few select items each day, and seemed to fall prey a little bit to the California cuisine fallacy that was even more in effect at that time: “Let’s find really great food and a bunch of fantastic ingredients, then throw in one or two things that absolutely shit it up but which pretentious foodies will think are the dog’s balls.”

Yeah, like that. That’s why I wound up ordering scallops, thinking they were fish, since they seemed like the least messed-up dish. (I didn’t find out until long after that they’re actually clams, which I never would have ordered, which is kind of weird because I do love me some New England clam chowder.

The food was amazing, and so was the service. A waiter would appear to refill your water glass the second you drained it, clean the tablecloth with a crumb-brush as the busboys took away the dishes between every course and, if anyone happened to go to the bathroom, they would come back to find a new napkin neatly folded in its original spot.

Yeah, that kind of fancy.

I have no idea how much it might have cost, but this was the co-executive producer and frequent director of a one-hour, prime-time TV series back in the day when broadcast TV meant something. And, to be honest, the real money was probably in the combination of directing and writing work, and residuals from both.

The other fancy place, which I’ve been to several times, is The Magic Castle, in Hollywood, which I’ve written about before, so I won’t go into great detail here. I’ll just say that for a membership club that allows ample guests, the prices are pretty reasonable, and if admission to the main dining room seems a little expensive, remember that it includes admission to all the mainstage shows — something you aren’t guaranteed if you’re cheaper.

Unfortunately, it’s mostly closed right now because of the pandemic, but when and if it re-opens, it’s worth going, and it’s not as hard to get in as you might think. Look up an L.A. magician who seems to do the corporate/birthday party circuit, figure out when they’re having a club show, then go see it. Afterwards, rave about their tricks and ask if they ever perform at the Magic Castle.

A lot of them do because they’re members, but at their level they’re like the dozens of garage bands that used to play tiny music venues in L.A., and sort of work for the same perks. Sure, they get to invite people because that’s how they get their audience, and those people spend money.

It’s exactly the same thing I experienced on the musician end of it, when in order to get a gig we had to guarantee a certain number of people. Oh, they all got in free, but there was a two drink minimum. The club made money off the booze. We only made it off of tickets that sold.

A lot of the non-name magicians at the Castle probably heard the same thing that we did: “You’re doing it for exposure.” But like we hoped to someday be good enough to play a larger local venue like the (late) Troubador before hitting a big theater or even an arena, they hope to open for a more famous magician or other variety act or, holy grail, go on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” and do what the title says in order to become Vegas famous.

Hm. Musician, magician. That’s only a two letter difference: us vs. ag, which actually makes sense… a band is a visible group, an “Us.” Meanwhile, a magician appears to be going solo (they’re not), but it costs a lot more money, really, for the tricks and their development than it does to becoming a working musician, hence it takes a lot of silver; atomic symbol, Ag.

Okay, I somewhat pulled that comparison out of my ass. But whether the former or the latter, I like to think that both types of artists deal in illusions — although I guess only the former also deals in allusions.

If you didn’t care at all what people thought of you, what clothes would you wear?

I don’t care what they think anyway, but the real snag is that it’s not legal, because I’d rather wear nothing because it’s just more comfortable.

Okay, it’s not totally illegal, and this is another topic I went more in-depth on two months ago. But America really needs to pull it’s repression out of its ass, lighten up, and learn from other countries where nudity is no big deal.

We all got’em — bodies and all the bits — and there really aren’t that many differences between them. But I bet that if we normalized nudity, it would eliminate body-shaming, help people with self-image, and greatly reduce things like eating disorders.

For one thing, it’s hard to point and laugh at someone else’s when you’re showing yours, most of us are not uber-fit supermodels, and it would demystify the human body to the point that porn might even become passé. It’s like the old joke about the two guys at a nudist colony (there’s a dated expression!) who don’t notice the attractive young woman until she puts on a tight T-shirt as she prepares to go home.

And general nudity might even really cut down on physical confrontations, because do you really want to start anything with that butt-nekkid WalMart security guard?

Friday Free-for-all #28: Two questions

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Since last week’s potpourri went so well, I decided to answer multiple questions again. I find that as I progress through the list, what remains seems less interesting to me. Although I can answer, I really can’t or don’t want to at length, so in interest of not needlessly padding things out, here we go.

What’s the worst injury you’ve ever gotten?

You know, I’ve actually managed to live a remarkably injury-free life (knocks wood.) I didn’t break my first bone until I was 21, in college, and it didn’t even have anything to do with drinking. It was the first day of the second semester my junior year (technically first semester of my senior year, but that’s a long story), and my birthday.

I was about to head off to my first class, but opened the living room window in our student apartment to check to see if I’d need a jacket since… February. It was cold, so I decided that I did, then slammed the window shut… right on the tip of my left index finger.

Did I mention that the apartment mate I shared a room with was in the living room on the phone talking to one of the Big 5 Accounting Firms in hopes of setting up a last semester of senior year internship that would turn into a job? Because that’s important.

Why? Because as soon as I slammed my finger in that window, I screamed something along the lines of, “Oh Jesus fucking fuckety fuck fuck fuck fucking Christ goddamit!”

There was a pause, and then I heard my roommate saying into the phone, “No… I think that one of my roommates just hurt himself.”

Hairline fracture of the tip of that finger, which got put in a splint for six weeks — and hooray for free student health care! But damn if that fingertip did not become a magnet for getting banged into everything for that month and a half.

The only other time I broke bone, ironically, was one in my wrist, and I never realized it. In fact, I didn’t find out until I thought that I did break a bone in my wrist and got it checked out only to find out that the little bone fragment in there was from a really old break. Like, what?

So, yeah. That’s pretty much it. One really minor break, one that was apparently unimportant enough for me to notice, and one false alarm.

Did your family take seasonal vacations?

Um… sort of? One thing I know is that my mother hated to travel, while my father loved to. Then again, she grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania that was a suburb to an exurb of the city Joe Biden was born in, and she only ever lived there before moving to Los Angeles, basically as a way to escape there.

Meanwhile, my dad, who was much older than her, enlisted in the air force as soon as possible — he was actually only sixteen — in order to escape here, and he wound up traveling all around the U.S. and a lot of the world.

But the only seasonal vacations we ever took involved visiting relatives — either his parents not so far up north, generally at Easter and Thanksgiving, or her mom and family all the way across the country, usually in the summer, and which I can remember doing exactly four times in my life, although it was actually five.

The first two times were by air, one for my aunt’s wedding in which I was ring-bearer. The time before that I have no memory of because I was a baby, but it was one of those “wave the infant in front of grandma” trips.

The last three were when I was a tween and teen, every other year in the summer, by car. To me, it was amazing. I was fascinated by seeing all of these new places, many of them definitely far different in a lot of ways from L.A., and my views untainted by any kind of political perception.

Wyoming is an absolutely beautiful state, for its mountains, clouds and spreading green, cow-splattered landscapes. So are Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah — and in New Mexico, you can actually feel the point when you reach the “top of America,” on a lonely road that passes between granite boulders strewn on deep-looking mossy lawns. The air thins and the path grows steeper and you meet the Rockies.

Small towns along the way in Iowa and Nebraska just fascinated me, and I will forever have memories of the seemingly abandoned and ancient buildings along the main street of a place called Kearney, Nebraska. Although we never actually stopped in Chicago, again, it fascinated the hell out of me — especially since I grew up in a city that technically had a river which was mostly a concrete ditch, whereas in Chicago I remember driving on a freeway past one row of skyscrapers only to pass over a substantial river right in the middle of the city before passing into another row of skyscrapers.

Most of Indiana just seemed… sad and broken. And Ohio through most of Pennsylvania just got monotonous, endless views of rolling green hills and not much else.

On the other hand, I entertained myself by either reading tons of books or, on the later trips, writing, and it was on one of those trips, I think when I was 13, that I actually wrote most of the first draft of my first attempt at a novel, inspired by the spaces we were driving through.

One other thing I should mention: We made the trip in record time because my dad would drive for at least 12 hours a day. I distinctly remember that the first leg of one of them left L.A. before five in the morning, and we didn’t stop until Rock Springs Wyoming, until at least six p.m. Go look that trip up on Google maps!

Still, I don’t think that it was that Dad was a maniac. Mostly, I think it was that Mom didn’t want to travel without the dog, didn’t want to put her in cargo on a plane, but wanted to make the trip as quickly as possible.

The only touristy bits I remember were the day that my dad and I went into New York City and took a tour (loved it!) and the time my uncle took us both into Philadelphia to show us all the historic stuff (also loved it!).

Meanwhile, trips to visit my father’s mother and my step-grandfather involved about a three-and-a-half hour drive and no tourism, but the great part about that was that she and her husband lived on a 14-acre farm and orchard, so there was plenty of nature and there were plenty of animals to hang out with — and this locale also inspired my writing.

Friday Free-for-all #27: Potpourri

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

I’m going to mix it up a little bit, because I have a long list of possible questions that I chose from at random, but there are certain ones I really don’t have answers for, or the answers I do have are too short for an article.

By the way, I really do mean at random, thanks to the “RANDBETWEEN” function in Excel, which gives me two choices every time I update it. One is based on the question’s actual order in the list, and the other is based on a random number assigned to it at the time. The number chosen is itself random.

Anyway here we go with a few that have been on the list unanswered for a while, and you may see why shortly.

  1. What is the opposite of a koala?

And how stoned was the person who came up with this one? I mean, which attributes do you use to determine the opposite in the first place? Living marsupial? Then any dead non-marsupial would suffice.

Furry and squishy? How about… a rock? Native to Australia? You’ve got 194 not-Australia countries to choose from. So, I don’t know. Living, furry, squishy marsupial native to Australia? Maybe a dinosaur fossil from somewhere in Wyoming?

  1. If there existed a perfect clone of you, would it also be you? Would it act in exactly the same manner as you (like a mirror) or would it act differently? If it acted differently then would it still be you? At what point would it not be you?

This one starts from a flawed premise, because a clone is not an identical copy. Hell, your own clone might only look like a fraternal twin, and would definitely not be identical. The reason for this is that in cloning, DNA is used the same way it is in more traditional baby-making methods — i.e., fucking.

Now, there may not be two separate bits of RNA from different parents being tossed into an ova to develop, so that starting material is 100% your DNA — but from that point on, nothing resembles your own development.

The uterine environment will be totally different, and if you implant that ova in any womb not your own mother’s (highly likely) the physical and chemical influence on the developing embryo will be wildly different.

Hell, even if you do convince your mom to give re-birth to you decades after the fact, her own prenatal environment will be entirely different, and she may even be incapable of doing it anyway if enough time has passed to push her into menopause.

Now if we imagine some magic machine, like the Star Trek replicator, which is really a non-destructive teleporter, then yes, you could in theory create an exact duplicate, or non-biological clone, of yourself.

But… the two of you are only identical in the very first instant that the new you becomes conscious. From then on, that clone is living a different life, with a different set of experiences, and you will both slowly diverge from identical, at least mentally.

Oh — and if you felt the need to clone yourself in the first place, good luck resisting the urge to do what you probably made the clone for: the ultimate act of non-solo masturbation.

  1. You are about to get into a fight, what song comes on as your soundtrack?

I always thought of this one as the “toxic masculinity” question — as in if you have an answer to it, especially an instant answer, you are probably a toxic male. I don’t find it necessary to get into fights. I never have. If I were ever attacked by someone physically, then yes, you can bet that I’d defend myself. But I wouldn’t be hearing Eye of the Tiger or any other typical song like that in my head. I’d be more concerned with stopping the person assaulting me.

  1. If your job gave you a surprise three day paid break to rest and recuperate, what would you do with those three days?

I’m just coming off of a surprise five-month paid break, which offered neither rest nor recuperation, so I think I’d either just say, “Thanks, but pass,” or go hole up in a resort in Palm Springs, season permitting, and once the lockdown is over.

  1. What outfit could you put together from clothes you own to get the most laughs?

It’s one that I actually pulled together from several thrift shops for a specifically-themed costume party in the first place.

The outfit comprised a predominantly orange floral-patterned sun dress that I wore as a skirt instead, paired with a pale peach tone fuzzy sweater, topped off with an orange blazer.

I had plenty of cheap costume jewelry, like bracelets and a necklace, mostly bronze tones, and topped it off with fake glasses in orange frames, orange nail polish, and a long brunet (or is it brunette?) wig.

Finally, I found a matching bag and women’s high-heeled boots in my size — 15W after translating from men’s, and ta-da. Betty Duzzet was born. Slapping on those five-inch heels made me at least 6’7”, and the wig probably added another inch or two, so I was an amazon, but far from a glamazon, since I didn’t go nuts with the make-up beyond lipstick and eye-liner.

The outfit was actually a hit, and people told me that I looked like a lesbian English teacher at a small Liberal Arts College in the upper Midwest. She probably won’t be coming back, but the outfit is still hanging in my closet. And yes, she and I share the same favorite color, but this blog probably gave that away already.

  1. Which season are you most active in?

It’s definitely changed over my lifetime, but I’d have to say that I’m currently most active during the summer. Well, caveat: Up until 2019, I was. All bets on “active” are off for this year, and possibly next. I’ve come to enjoy the sun and the heat and being outdoors, and the need for a lot less clothing.

  1. What is the “holy grail” of your life?

This one is easy, and probably just as mythical: Owning a home. Nothing fancy, just a place with enclosed front and back yards for dogs, and a pool for me. Maybe a guest house for either rental income or to help out friends in need when necessary.

Friday Free-for-all #26

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If you went into a coma and woke up in the year 2120, what would be the first thing you would want to know?

Well, we’ll dispense with the obvious question first because it probably isn’t going to come up later: How the hell did you keep me a live in a coma for a century, and well past what was the maximum human life span at the time I went into it?

The real first thing I’d want to know would be… everything, although I’d probably start by asking — assuming the coma started before it happened — “Who won the presidential election of 2020, and what happened after that?”

It wouldn’t really influence my opinion of the present world, since a lot can change in a hundred years — in 1920, after all, the second term of an extremely racist U.S. President was coming to an end, and women were only just getting the right to vote on the federal level. Meanwhile, lynching and other acts of racial violence were far too common…

Okay, maybe shit doesn’t change in a century. Well, some things don’t. But on the other hand, comparing the state of technology in 1920 and 2020 is to compare two completely different worlds.

They barely had perfected the ability to fly, and the radio and telegraph were the state-of-the-art in long-distance communication. Meanwhile, we’ve sent people to the Moon and space, probes to other planets and outside of our solar system, while television has been a major medium since at least the 1950s and the internet and our phones have put each one of us, personally, in contact with the entire world almost instantaneously.

Seriously, I think if I explained to somebody in 1920 that I could use a keyboard and screen (or just the version of the screen that fits in my pocket) to chat with friends in cities across the U.S., or countries like Peru or the UK in real-time, their head would explode.

So I can only imagine the state of technology, and maybe that’s the first thing I’d ask. What was the successor to all of our technology? By this point, connectivity may just be implanted and universal, and who knows how far the transhumanist movement may have gotten.

Everyone may have already shifted to a life-like robotic avatar, or just migrated to a virtual existence a la the show Upload. It would explain how they managed to bring me back after a hundred years.

But all of that technology really doesn’t matter, though, depending on the answer to my real first question: Did humankind ever get its shit together and deal with things like inequality, injustice, and poverty; taking care of the environment and providing healthcare, education, housing, and a basic income for all? And everything else?

Solve those problems or make substantial gains in those areas, then okay, I might stick around. Otherwise, put me back in the coma and get back to me in a century.

Honestly, though, I think that humanity will only be around in a century if we do deal with all of these issues, and do so in a profoundly progressive manner. All of our technological advances are meaningless if we stay mired in greed, prejudice, fear, and intolerance.

This planet is not an Us vs Them proposition. There is only an Us, and it’s only in working together — and realizing that there is enough for everyone as long as too much doesn’t go to anyone — that we will actually see the year 2120.

Hell, without changing course, humans may not see 2024.

Friday Free-for-all #23

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s your favorite holiday movie?

Very appropriate that this one popped up now, since we’re almost exactly between Christmases which, face it, is what most people think of when they think “holiday movie.” Well, except for the twisted folk who think of the Halloween franchise, of course.

Groundhog Day is probably one of the better-known and more beloved non-Christmas films, But you have to think really hard to come up with others without looking. For example, which holiday is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles about? (Hint: it’s not Christmas.)

Did you even remember that Eight Crazy Nights is a thing until I mentioned it? And while at least the first Independence Day movie took place around that holiday, it only counts if you stick strictly to America, of course, which is just jingoistic and awkward when you remember that it’s the whole planet being invaded.

Easter movies tend to be about either Jesus or Bunnies, although Monty Python’s Life of Brian absolutely is an Easter film that isn’t strictly about either. New Year’s Eve fares a little better, including the strangely fascinating Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Released in 1995, it was set in the two days leading into the year 2000 — although it wasn’t so much about the holiday as about the existence of recordings of people’s memories as a black-market drug.

Oddly enough, 1995 was the same year that Terry Gillaim’s 12 Monkeys came out — another mid-90s science fiction film set in the very-near future, although in the case of this one, the year was 1996, which was about exactly a year after the release date of the film.

Meta.

But, for me, this question actually has two answers, and I’ve already mentioned the director of one of the films. However, I’ll start with the more obvious choice.

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those movies I can watch over and over, and from any point I happen to stumble across a re-broadcast. In case you live under a rock, it came out in 1946, directed by Frank Capra, and it stars James Stewart as George Bailey in the story of a small-town Everyman who winds up giving up his own dreams in order to help others.

One of the most fascinating things about the film is the abrupt tone-shift as we move into the third act, more on which in a moment. Up until that point, it barrels head-long into the American Dream — and remember, the whole thing was being produced right as the U.S. defeated the Powers of Evil™ and became the predominant and benevolent World Power — never mind that whole nuking civilians in Japan thing.

George Bailey — born into white privilege in the town of Bedford Falls, around 1907. After all, his father and uncle own the local Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, so the family is well-off. Well, at least until 1928, when young George is planning to embark on a world tour which is cancelled when his father has a stroke and dies.

Oops.

George is coerced by the board into taking over the company. Meanwhile, George gives his trip money to his brother Harry (whose life he already saved once) to pay his college tuition with the agreement that Harry take over the company after he graduates so George can be free to pursue his dreams.

Needless to say, Harry reneges because of a good job offer; George marries good girl Mary, but the stock market crashes and they have to spend their honeymoon money bailing out the Building and Loan.

Eventually, George starts a housing development with nice and affordable homes while the Big Bad, Henry Potter, tries to subvert him from his mission, but George will have none of it.

And then… George’s addle-brained Uncle Billy fucks up big time, accidentally hands Potter the Building and Loan’s deposits (the modern equivalent of $110K in cash), and suddenly George lands deep in the shit.

This is where the film turns dark and George’s guardian angel Clarence turns up to present George with the proverbial Monkey’s Paw answer to his appeal: “I wish I’d never been born.”

That’s exactly what George gets, and it becomes a beautiful butterfly effect of events. He never saved his brother from drowning, which had enormous repercussions in World War II, leaving hundreds of men to die in a Kamikaze attack. George wasn’t there to stop his pharmacist boss from making a mistake, leading to a kid being poisoned and said pharmacists winding up as a homeless town pariah.

Even the women in his life suffered — his wife Mary went on to become a mousy spinster librarian, and while it’s not absolutely clear how George helped childhood friend Violet Bick, she’s pretty much a whore in the town of Potterville. And even his own sainted mother morphed into one gigantic uber-Karen bitch.

Oh — it’s not Bedford Falls anymore, either, so there’s that.

There is one really brilliant but easy to miss moment in this act, too, and that’s the instant when Clarence starts the process of saving George. See, Bailey is about to dive off of the bridge to kill himself, hoping that his life insurance will take care of all of his financial problems. But Clarence knows his subject well, and in that moment he throws himself into the water first and begins shouting out that magic phrase.

“I can’t swim. Help, help. I can’t swim. Help!”

And what has been George’s life-long pattern? Helping everyone else without thinking about himself. So he dives in and drags Clarence out, and the rest happens.

Now, I don’t care how jaded or cynical you are, but once we get to the climax of the film — when George’s original reality is restored and he races home — if you don’t cry at least once if not for at least the last fifteen minutes of the movie, then you have no fucking heart.

Shit, if the waterworks don’t go off in just the first ten seconds of that clip out of context, make an appointment with your cardiologist now.

Here’s the funny thing about It’s a Wonderful Life, though — on initial release, it bombed. Big time. Critics loved it, but audiences didn’t, and it lost half a million dollars. It probably would have just vanished, except for one incredible fuck-up.

At some point, somebody forgot to renew the copyright, and so the film fell for a time into the public domain, which meant that it could be shown freely forever. And who picked up on that? Television stations, which led to the movie being run over and over around Christmas every year and, ta-da, instant classic.

Okay, slight simplification — the film itself was free. The short story it was based on was not. Still, beginning in 1974, the movie was on the express train to beloved Christmas classic and, honestly, I think that it deserves it.

As for my other choice, which I love even more than It’s a Wonderful Life, that would be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is every inch a Christmas movie while not being about Christmas per se, but still being about the hopes of a dreamer pitted against society at large.

Sure, Brazil’s Sam Lowry loses his battle, sort of, but he’s kind of an anti-George Bailey: a man who starts out working for the side of evil only to be liberated by his (most likely never-requited) love for a woman he may or may not have actually met, but rather only saw one time on the way to work.

That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst case, he actually wound up getting her arrested and, probably, summarily executed as a suspected terrorist. Oops.

Eventually, he winds up finding refuge in his own fantasia of a world where yes, he did actually matter as he is tortured by people he had thought to be his friends and allies.

All of this is played out against some of the most amazing film design ever, in a world that takes place during the entire 20th century at once, on a Tuesday. In fact, a lot of the aesthetic would have felt totally at home to George Bailey, especially the costumes and technology.

Here’s a really good example of the design and tech of the film:

Anyway, Gilliam’s Brazil is the best version of 1984 ever filmed, period. The movie is also infamous for some useless asshole producer at Universal trying eviscerate it, leading to Gilliam taking out ads in the trades demanding that the studio give his film back.

Luckily, Gilliam won that battle, although we still got to see the version that the hack Sid Sheinberg wanted to release on various Criterion Collections and, yes… it was absolute shite.

Anyway… it’s a nearly perfect film. Go seek it out and watch it, whether it’s Christmas or not.

PS: I’m so sorry that trailers in the 80s sucked ass…

Friday Free-for-all #22

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If you had a personal mascot, what would your mascot be?

This is actually a rather easy question to answer, because if I were ever to get a tattoo, it would be this animal. People who know me might think I’d say dog or wolf, but that’s not it. My choice is both more fabulous and less real.

My personal mascot would be a phoenix, not to be confused with the mythical Russian firebird (Жар-птица) or the Native American thunderbird — although the latter is considered a relative.

All three also happen to be models of cars, although to be honest the only one that’s visually appealing to me at all would be the Pontiac Firebird, especially later models — although the emblematic bird decal on the hood is a must, even though it seems to have only been a thing during the second generation in the 1970s.

But that isn’t my firebird because mine isn’t a car anyone really remembers, plus it uses fire in a different way. The Russian firebird launched its flames outward. The phoenix self-directs them.

You’ve probably heard the legend. The phoenix is a very ancient bird to begin with, but every so often, it will return to its nest, spontaneously burst into flames, and die in the fire — except that it doesn’t, and the bird is resurrected anew and young again from its own ashes.

That’s something I’ve done in my own life, metaphorically, over and over again. The phoenix regularly faces catastrophe, but survives. I hate to give any attention to a transphobic TERF idiot, but here’s a bit from the Franchise that Shall not Be Named in which a phoenix does its thing.

Certainly, the entire 2020 experience is setting me on this course again, since it managed to take away so much of what I knew and loved and did. I am finally about to sort of get back to work, most of it remotely from home, but at the same time I have, for the moment, lost live theatre, as audience and performer, as a part of my life until who knows when.

I also miss seeing friends in person, the comfort of a hug, and the warmth of a voice that comes through air instead of wires.

I have a feeling that 2020 is going to turn a lot of us into phoenixes, or at least cast us into the fire. Whether we come out of the ashes or not is entirely up to each of us, but it is always better to decide to persevere and win than it is to give up.

And if you’re having trouble dealing with the flames, reach out. Even if we can’t (well, really shouldn’t) touch physically right now, we can do it emotionally across the distance. Think now about what you’re going to be once the flames subside and you poke your head out of the ashes, comfortable in the familiar and nurturing home of your own nest, born anew to take flight on your next adventure.

Yeah. I’ll take that mascot, please.

Friday Free-for-all #20

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

When was the last time you climbed a tree?

I don’t remember any times distinctly as an adult, although there must have been a few times in my 20s, but I do remember the last time I climbed the tree in the backyard of my parents’ house. Well, not the specific date or anything, but the general details.

I was fifteen, in high school, and had been climbing this tree since I’d been tall enough to jump up and grab the lowest strong branch. The trick was to grab this one, swing my legs up to grab it as well, then turn myself around until I was sitting on it.

From there, a couple more branches formed easy steps, and then it was a matter of finding the footholds up toward the top, which was a nice crow’s nest surrounded by foliage, about forty feet up.

The funny thing, too, was that all of the good climby parts were on the southwest part of the tree. On the north, the branches were too thin, and on the east the good ones didn’t start until too high because that was the side that grew against the wall that separated our house from the neighbors the next street over.

Part of the reason I loved to climb that tree, which was the biggest one in the yard, was the challenge of it, and I remember that it took a few years to progressively figure out and/or be brave enough to go up another level. Physical size and strength also had something to do with it.

Once I got up there, there wasn’t much of a view, since it was in the middle of a suburban housing tract made up of about four different floor plans — two single-story and two two-story — which were made to appear to be more variations by virtue of having a mirror-image of each. There were also minor differences, particularly window style and little things like that.

So the view, even from the top of the tree, was pretty much my parent’s roof, the roof of the house across the street, and the trees behind it looking west, more of the same looking east, and nothing but trees and hedges looking north and south.

But it wasn’t about the view. It was a place I could go that my parents couldn’t, somewhere I could hang out and just think and enjoy being surrounded by nature.

It was also the only climbable tree we had. The only other tree in the backyard was a plum tree my parents had planted when I was a late tween, and it was still basically a sapling even by the time I moved on to college. Likewise, the one tree in front of our house on the strip between the sidewalk and street was a plum tree and, while it had been planted when the place had been built decades earlier, plum trees just really aren’t climber friendly.

The last year that I climbed the tree in our backyard, in fact, was the same year that our next door neighbors planted their Christmas tree on the south side of their front yard, so another not-climbable thing. Twenty years later is a different story — that thing grew into a monster to rival my favorite tree in height and girth, although not in climability.

Oh, I’ve never tried, but the thing basically turned into a thick trunk and a giant primary branch that grew out of it like an arm and elbow. Maybe a good place to jump up to and sit, but otherwise like trying to climb a fat lamppost.

My favorite tree was a birch, by the way, and the last time I climbed it was one day when I was fifteen. It may have even been a while at that point since I had climbed it, but I jumped up, grabbed that faithful first branch and then swung my legs up and held on.

I made it a few more rungs up, and then hung upside-down to a higher branch I didn’t usually use to climb, but I was experimenting. This one was probably about twelve feet up, and didn’t have any branches below it.

I hung onto this one, totally trusting “my” tree and then heard a loud crack. Then I felt the fall and I swear to this day that while the trip down in reality probably took no more than two seconds, in my mind it lasted at least a minute, if not more.

I remember my distinct thoughts. “Oh fuck. I’m falling.” And then “I’m going to wind up dead under this branch and what if no one finds me?” The world really went into slow motion, and I swear that I could feel the breeze in my hair, watch the tree above me slowly recede, and then… thump.

I was lying on the ground with a large but not heavy branch on top of me, and I stayed there for a while until I realized, “Okay, I’m not dead.”

Then I went inside and left my tree-climbing days behind me. What? I had to focus on something just as risky and stupid — playing keyboards in a band, of course.